We really want to make a difference
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin wrote on Facebook that Youth Corps Singapore volunteers made the observation that some cardboard collectors did it to while away time. The minister and the volunteers have been criticised for their statements. A Youth Corps volunteer talks about her own experience as one
Until recently, even my friends had little idea of what I do as a volunteer with the Youth Corps Singapore (YCS).
All that changed when Minister of Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin highlighted the work of seven YCS members who had embarked on an initiative to understand cardboard collectors.
The volunteers wanted to know how these elderly cardboard collectors could be helped. They have since written a report which they hope will be translated into real help by the relevant agencies for the cardboard collectors.
Unfortunately, some people view their effort as political leverage. The youth have also been criticised for glossing over the conditions that made the elderly turn to cardboard collecting to earn a living.
I joined the Youth Corps, which currently has 200 members, last month because I wanted a sustainable approach to community work. In 2013, at age 16, I went on a school overseas community trip to Laos and taught art to village children over two weeks.
But the villagers had other ideas.
On one occasion, the villagers cancelled one of our lessons to throw a party and left us to clear up stale beer, trash and vomit before our next lesson could start.
Something in me broke that day and I started to have the following question: "Do the people that I am 'helping' even need, in the first place, the help that I'm providing?"
More often than not, we hear of ad hoc activities like a bunch of naive youngsters volunteering with a community partner for just four months to teach the elderly some art activities.
Once their Community Involvement Programme hours have been fulfilled, these students disappear and the community partner would have to find another group of volunteers.
To find out how to better help others, I joined YCS, a national institution that supports youth keen to serve the community through its community development projects that provide both local and overseas volunteering experiences.
Bringing together Singaporean youth aged 16 to 35, YCS is the product of a marriage between the National Youth Council and Outward Bound Singapore, and the first cohort of volunteers was admitted in June 2014.
We had a year-long training stint, where participants learnt from YCS and collaborated with a community partner to bring about a long-term impact on the target community.
In being trained to diagnose a community's needs, I have learnt that it is important to thoroughly understand its needs before embarking on change.
And like the youth who volunteered to be with the cardboard collectors, I also learnt that the work never ends.
During my training stint, I made friends with people of different races and educational backgrounds.
Indeed, I spent six years in a Chinese school and another six years in the School of the Arts Singapore.
Yet, by talking to fellow volunteers in a five-day induction camp at Pulau Ubin, I learnt about the different struggles and labels that we unintentionally give to say, a person who failed his or her O levels.
However, there are limitations to gathering information in a short span of time. And even then, it will not be as detailed or comprehensive as we may like.
That said, while some of the comments about the cardboard collectors are harsh, the episode has not changed my mind about volunteering.
The volunteers I have met are sincere in wanting to make a difference based on the needs of those struggling. When we volunteer, we know it would be challenging and that the commitment would be long term.
But when has making a change ever been easy?